Interview with Gary Alan Fine

Carrie McGath

Owl Collection

A few weeks ago, I made the trek to Glenview, Illinois to visit the home of Gary Alan Fine, an avid collector of Outsider Art. For his day job, he is a social psychology professor at Northwestern University. He stepped a bit out of his academic zone to pen the book Everyday Genius, the result of intensive study and a general growing appreciation for Outsider Art. He welcomed me warmly into his beautiful and sunny home that I would learn was designed by Prairie School architect, William Keck. Upon entering the house, I found myself literally surrounded by artwork. I could tell his collection was not only extensive, but one built on a passionate relationship with it. We began in the living room and we began to talk about Outsider Art, his collection, and even his book on the subject, Everyday Genius.

Carrie McGath: So what got you started in collecting Outsider Art?

Gary Alan Fine: A couple things. Financially, it is possible. I am an academic, not a lawyer or businessman. Plus, as a sociologist I am very interested in the human identity of the pieces.

CM: So in entering your living room, I first notice the beautiful stained glass that lines the top of the ceiling.

Owl Totem, Homer Green

GAF: The stained glass represents the seasons. A local artist here in Chicago, Larry Zgoda, made them. We gave him the themes, but he did the work. When the sun is out, the floor sparkles like jewels. You see that one is February where we are now. It shows winter. For December over there, you can see colors and shapes that show holiday colors. October has the autumnal colors.

CM: We are here in the living room, and I definitely see a theme in here for sure. Can you talk a little about this room?

GAF: The theme in here are owls. I’ve been collecting owls since I was seventeen. There are different kinds of owls. Each owl has a particular story. We have five-hundred owls at this point. Whenever my wife and I go anywhere, we get an owl.


CM: Do you want to choose an owl and tell me one of those stories?

GAF: Let’s see. This is an owl I got in Montreal, I call it “Owl Number 1.” When I was 17, I went to Expo ’77 and we went into this souvenir shop. There was a shelf of hundreds of owls and all of them looked the same. All of them had a left glass eye and I got the one with the one right eye.

CM: Does this owl totem piece have a story? This piece commands the whole room.

GAF: This totem is by Tennesee folk artist, Homer Green. We were living in Georgia at the time. Our house had a large, cathedral great room, so this piece fit perfectly. This piece is a bit over ten feet tall. So when we looked for houses here, we had to make sure it had a room with at least a loft to fit the Homer Green! We would never part with it.

CM: How about the other details in the room like the pottery and the wood pieces?

GAF: We have many other Outsider Art pieces, works by Jesse Aaron, Mose Tolliver, Charlie Kinney, Lonnie Holley. We have an Audubon print, even a Disney animation cell. This wood furniture and wood bowls are made of maple, white oak, and walnut and were picked up when we traveled.

CM: So your collection is throughout the house?

GAF: Yes, and every room has a different theme. Here in the hallway are cityscapes or pieces that are city scenes.


Bernice Tanz Fine

CM: Here is the piece by your mother that opens your book, Everyday Genius. In the Introduction of the book you talk about your mother painting. You talk about how you used to not appreciate her work, but it seems you regret ever feeling this way.

GAF: My mother painted while my brother and I were playing. I grew up in New York City, and my brother and I would play at a playground near The Metropolitan Museum of Art. My mother’s work was not sophisticated to me. When looking at art, you often look for perspective and this doesn’t have perspective. But, now I can get past that. The lack of perspective doesn’t mean this isn’t a wonderful piece. But back then, I didn’t respect it. In terms of Outsider Art, her paintings are great. I wish I could have told her that. The appreciation came too late.

CM: What about this piece? It looks like it was drawn with markers, but the control in the cityscape is amazing.

GAF: This is an ink drawing; I think with markers. It is a drawing of Miami Beach. When I bought this I was told it was made by a man in a psychiatric ward who had never seen or been to Miami Beach. This is completely from his imagination; what he imagined Miami Beach would look like.

CM: Amazing. It looks to me like a great depiction of Miami Beach with the water and the vibrant colors. Is the uniqueness of the works’ stories what draws you to collecting Outsider Art?

GAF: Seems that way, doesn’t it? I am attracted to pieces with some weirdness to them, something off. Here, in the bathroom, is a great example of a piece that had a weirdness that attracted me. This piece I bought in an antique shop in the South by Donnie Thormer. I had never heard of this artist and have yet to hear anything, but it attracted me. So I bought it for like fifty dollars, and here it is. 


Untitled, Donnie Thormer

CM: This is my favorite piece so far! A woman with an apple holding a child having her portrait painted in the painting.

GAF: Makes you wonder what this is all about. Let’s go into the family room and office.

CM: Does this room have a theme as well?

GAF: Yes. This wall is all work that has something to do with American history.

CM: I saw a couple of these in the living room. What are these jugs?

GAF: These are called Face Jugs. I was told these jugs were originally created for alcohol. The artist purposely made the faces on the jugs look scary. The idea was to scare kids away from the jugs so they wouldn’t drink the alcohol.

CM: Are Face Jugs mostly from the South?

GAF: Mostly Georgia and North Carolina because of the natural clay found there. These jugs evolved from something used for alcohol to art pieces made for tourists and collectors. That is what we mostly have. We pick them up whenever we see one that strikes us.

CM: How did you come to write Everyday Genius? It is a great book all about the history of Outsider Art, a very well-researched book.

GAF: I was living in Atlanta, the center for this kind of art. Around 1995, I started to collect data on collectors, curators and the artists themselves in Outsider Art and then about 1999 I wrote Everyday Genius.


Face Jug

CM: The nineties seemed to be the explosion for Outsider Art, as your book attests. How is Outsider Art accepted now?

GAF: The moment for Outsider Art has passed a little bit. In the nineties, it was trendy to own an Outsider Art piece. Now it’s just different.

CM: Any theories?

GAF: Well, many of the the authentic Outsider Artists are dead. Now, people finish school, they are exposed to art, take art classes, so there really are not many authentic Outsider artists nowadays.

CM: What exactly do you mean by “authentic” Outsider Artists?

GAF: The original Outsider artists never finished grade school in many cases. They were never exposed to art. So their artwork expresses these very true and authentic moments of creativity. But that said, even today, the best work is still widely recognized.

CM: So what is the best work today?

GAF: For me, work by Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, Martin Ramirez, Henry Darger. Ulysses Davis is great, too. There is a show of his work now at the Intuit Gallery here in Chicago. He was a African-American barber from Savannah, and now one of the canonical Outsider artists.

CM: So out of everything here in your vast collection what is your favorite piece?

GAF: I bet that Owl Totem by Homer Green. And of course my mother’s paintings.

Gary Alan Fine is the author of Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (Kathryn Born’s favorite book on the subject – highly recommended).  His next book,  The Global Grapevine: How Rumors of Terrorism, Trade and Migration Matter, will be published by Oxford University Press in  June 2010.